Kitchen suppers are not what they were. The kitchen has now completely disengaged from below stairs, to become an all purpose middle-class entertainment zone. It has, for instance, usurped the music room as a signifier of "culture". Kitchens are, literally, laboratories of taste, the places people experiment with style, demonstrate their sophistication, flash their wealth. They may even cook there, although this is not mandatory. (Britain's leading kitchen designer, Johnny Grey, had a harassed American client who insisted on the powerfully symbolic Aga but, too busy to cook, used its capacious roasting to store files.) Once you might have demonstrated your credentials with a Steinway baby grand and a score of Schubert's D960 carefully propped on the music-stand. Now you do it with an Aga or a Falcon six-burner and a well-thumbed recipe for seared cod with miso vinaigrette frisée.
A generation ago wage slaves would come home, throw off their coats, sigh and have a gin and tonic. Now we stumble into the kitchen, greedily unplug a bottle of white wine from the catafalque-sized American-style double-doored fridge, rootle in the salad drawer, and think about whether we are going to do a Jamie or Nigella tonight. Accordingly, as a room so invested with expectations of the best things contemporary life has to offer, the kitchen environment has acquired its own rich symbolic language. A well-scrubbed chopping board is right up there, in moral and aesthetic terms, with a set of Scott-Moncrieff's Proust. A set of good knives at least the equal, in status terms, of an earth-trembling sound system.
We recently dined at a friend's house. He has just bought an impressive new car, a superb Ivon Hitchens painting, but what he wanted to show us and talk about was his kitchen. So down we went. In a five-storey house with room to spare we were eating below stairs, in the basement where the masterpiece kitchen, along with the masterpiece canvas, was now installed.
I ran my hand over the cold, marmoreal laminates, admired the dampered action of the door-closers, the air-pocketed phoof as the door made a perfect seal; I blinked under the coruscating scrutiny of the low-voltage downlighters, cooed at the sheen of the stainless details, slid over the hardwood floors. Knowingly, I looked him in the eye and said "Bulthaup?" (referring to the German kitchen manufacturer which, with a range of at least 600,000 separate components, can approximate to the fertile originality of Divinity when it comes to matching modern kitchen design with contemporary aspirations). He looked at me with a disdain that shaded into pity. "No, no, no, my poor dear thing," he said. "It's Boffi." Speaking as if I had confused the Singing Nun with Howlin' Wolf, my friend's invocation of this brand immediately established a lofty hierarchy of consumerist prestige in which I demonstrably occupied a lower altitude.
There may be something about the systematic processes involved in kitchen manufacture that appeals very directly to the inclinations of the German soul, but in terms of design, style, social advantage, call it what you will, the Italians have, perhaps, something of an advantage. Boffi is the Milanese manufacturer which introduced its C (or "colour") kitchen in 1954, thus adding polychromy to the kitchen sink and all that goes with it. Two years later, Aga itself went polychrome. Boffi it was who commissioned the classic modernist, Joe Colombo, to design a free-standing plastic kitchen in 1963: mounted on free-wheeling castors, this was a perfect symbol of all the optimistic folly of its decade. So much so that an example found its way into the influential exhibition called "Italy: the new domestic landscape" at New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 1972.
In the same way that MoMA had, in the Fifties, acknowledged the democratic modern potential of design by acquiring a plastic bucket (designed by Gino Colombini) and exhibiting it in the then home of Picasso's Guernica, the elevation of a mass-produced kitchen to the condition of art predicted our current preoccupation with Bulthaup and Boffi, Aga and Falcon.
Italians have not yet made that ruinous distinction between life and art, so that when Boffi's Luigi Massoni says, "Open pull-out close rest hang prepare cook wash iron all these things many times a day", you know that there is an aesthetically satisfactory solution waiting to be advanced for such banal chores. Making ordinary experiences memorable is one test for the presence of "design".
Boffi's designer Antonio Citterio produced the Factory Range in the Eighties, introducing all of us to a metallic industrial rhetoric that replaced coloured tiles and stained pine and still dominates the masterpiece kitchen. But machines have always played their part in kitchen iconography. All areas of religious observation require icons and, in the kitchen's emergence from hygienic food preparation area to domestic shrine, machines have provided them.
Americans had sensed early on a broader social significance for the kitchen. Catherine E Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe in The American Woman's Home (1869) established what became known as the Cult of Domesticity, ghosts of which remain in the corporate presence of Sara Lee and Betty Crocker.
But the social and technical revolutions of the 20th century made the kitchen an area for architectural, as well as social and gastronomic, experimentation. The mechanical possibilities of modernism fascinated, for instance, Le Corbusier, who liked to design kitchens that looked like sewage works.
Americans were at least as theoretical as they were rhetorical in this area: Frederick Winslow Taylor's followers in his religiose Scientific Management movement soon established the functional benefits of planning kitchens to work efficiently with "routing", "step saving" and the scary-sounding "germ theory"; but it was pioneer industrial designers such as Raymond Loewy who feminised the functional food preparation area with chromed styling intended to demonstrate the ease and efficiency of the New Order. This aestheticisation of the hitherto functional kitchen became one of the 20th century's great cultural adventures.
A Maryland farmer called Thomas Moore published an essay on refrigeration as long ago as 1803, although it was not until 1834 that Jacob Perkins established the principles of mechanical refrigeration and still later in 1876 when German engineer Carl von Linde invented the ammonia compressor and opened the way for the commercial production of ice.
Power tools became familiar in the US kitchen in the 1930s when Chop-o-Matics, Veg-o-Matics and Wonda-Graters played their counter-top part in the modernist dream of streamlined labour saving. In Britain we had to wait until 1948 until Ken Maynard Wood introduced his A200. Maturing into the famous Kenwood Chef, its presence indicated ratatouille and Provence instead of cauliflower cheese and the West Midlands.
But no kitchen tool rivals the symbolic significance of the famous Aga. This unlikely triumph of British domestic civilisation owes its origins to a Swedish inventor called Gustaf Dalen (who made his name with patent improvements for lighthouses), the inventor of a new type of efficient oven for the Svenska Aktiebolaget Gas Accumulator in 1922. British taste has ever since been calibrated by Aga.
Aga brochures show their equipment propped with Philippe Starck and professional-looking Hobart mixers. A kitchen firm called Christian's will sell you cabinets with classical detail and gold leaf to surround your Aga with appropriate reverence and dignity. Now, in a heroic fit of brand extension, Aga will also make you a fridge.
The kitchen is the most romantic part of a house, bedrooms included. In fact, in some forms of mating, the kitchen has succeeded the boudoir as a venue. When M F K Fisher arrived in Dijon in 1929, she lovingly described the little kitchen she had in her rented property: "Perhaps five feet long, and certainly not more than three feet wide. Its floor of uneven baked tiles was scoured to a mellow pinkness. There were two weak shelves, slanting towards the floor. A two-burner gas plate on a tottering table above the stove."
Here, in a harsh and difficult and crass world, is the romance that made Elizabeth David an escapist cult and, through her influence, turned the kitchen into the heart of the home. She said, according to Johnny Grey in his book The Art of Kitchen Design, that it was amazing what you could achieve with a single gas ring on the landing.
Significantly, I like to think, in the march of British material culture, Johnny Grey is Elizabeth David's nephew. His clients have included a gay impresario who insisted on a circular kitchen in which he could perform, in the round, before guests, although the dishwasher was located on the outside of the arena so the same guests could help to stack. Grey has a long list of clients who will pay up to a £250,000 for a new kitchen.
The more sterile the PC Worlds become, the more we will take refuge near the stove at home, in an environment that suggests comfort, nurture and local – rather than networked – expertise. From MFI to Smallbone of Devizes, the nbasis structure of the internal carcasses is the same; the important and telling effects are on the surface. White laminate, limed oak, stainless steel.
Equipment, too, is revealing. Do we identify with the mighty power of US industry, with suggestions of an ancient industrial heritage comparable to Burlington Northern, by choosing a powerful Viking range (a company manufacturing on its own account only since 1989)? Or do we prefer the more subtle associations of a stove made by La Cornue or La Diva de Provence?
The details scarcely matter. A good kitchen will be warm, with the expectation of nourishment; well designed, but not intimidatingly so. Full of the attractive symbolism of prosperity and the comforting associations of competence, the modern kitchen has become the most important expression of that persistent, but elusive, notion ... the Dream Home.